Jacob Whitehead has looked through the history books to pick out a handful of standout Tests between Wales and the Wallabies
Wales and Australia will face off on Sunday in what is expected to be the decisive game of Pool D at the Rugby World Cup. So here’s a reminder of five of the best Tests between the Welsh and the Wallabies…
Australia 19 Wales 17, Sydney 1978
When you’re cornered in the corner of your local club by an old-timer, they always tell you the game was different in their day. You nod politely and smile weakly, feeling slightly doubtful. But when you remember a game like this, your compatriot is proved decisively right.
Wales won their first (and only) Test in Australia in 1969, but the heartbeat of that team had fallen away by 1978. Yet an injury-hit Wales, sporting legendary full-back JPR Williams at openside flanker, pushed Australia hard in Sydney.
It is a game remembered for two controversial moments, neither of which we should expect to see in Tokyo this weekend. Firstly, Graham Price had his jaw broken after being punched by Steve Finnane and the Welsh prop had to eat liquidised food for six weeks.
Then controversy marred the closing moments of the game. Australia led 16-13 with ten minutes to go when their fly-half Paul McLean dropped a goal to seemingly seal the game for Australia. Or did he?
Blinded by the setting sun, the referee was unable to tell if McLean’s kick passed between the posts. Accusations of bias weren’t helped by the fact that referee Dick Byers sported the socks of his home club, Queensland State. Although he was told with a few choice words that the Australian’s effort had missed by three or four yards, the points stayed on the board, rendering Gerald Davies’s late try a mere consolation.
Wales 22 Australia 21, Rotorua 1987
A Rugby World Cup third-place play-off does not linger long in the memory. Do you remember that Wales and Australia played in one back in 2011? I didn’t. However, their meeting in 1987 was a thrilling affair, as a last-minute score secured Wales’ highest-ever World Cup finish.
Whilst ‘form’ can hardly be said to matter in a play-off between losing semi-finalists, Wales were the clear underdogs. New Zealand had swept them aside 49-6 the week before, whilst Australia lost narrowly to France.
A moment of madness from David Codey changed all this. The openside’s Jackie Chan-inspired entrance to a ruck saw him sent off for stamping after just five minutes.
Wales, displaying moments of offloading to make Leone Nakarawa jealous, led early, but Australia chipped their way back into the game – with Matt Burke’s sumptuous line (no, not that Matt Burke) the pick of them. Paul Moriarty, whose nephew Ross is likely to face the Australians this weekend, scored a crucial Welsh try to keep his side in touch.
At the last, with the Australians leading 21-15, Jonathan Davies launched a giant Garryowen that Wales regathered. Paul Thorburn offloaded to put Adrian Hadley into the corner, and the Welsh suddenly needed only the conversion.
Full-back Thorburn split the posts from an improbable angle before slamming the ball into touch to seal a win for Wales.
Wales 29 Australia 29, Cardiff 2006
After 18 years of losing to the Australians, Wales finally broke their hoodoo in 2005, triumphing 24-22 in a large part due to the genius of Shane Williams. A year later they’d play out a match even more exciting, tying a six-try thriller in Cardiff.
The year 2006 was an interesting one for Welsh rugby, as they slalomed from 2005’s Grand Slam to 2007’s ignominious World Cup exit. Yet in Williams, Dwayne Peel and Gavin Henson they had three backs in contention for a World XV.
Henson set up a crucial try for Williams with hands speedier than a sign language interpreter at an Eminem concert to bring Wales back into the game.
They moved through the gears to lead 26-24 with 15 minutes left, when some Chris Latham magic took the Australians back into the lead. Picking up the ball on the bounce at halfway, he beat three Welshmen in the five-metre channel before slamming the ball down in the corner. The headline seemed to scream ‘Late Aussie try dooms Wales!’, but then a James Hook penalty tied the scores. It’s the only ever draw between the two sides.
Wales 12 Australia 14, Cardiff 2012
To 2012, and the epitome of Welsh Antipodean heartbreak. Wales had won a Grand Slam that March, but lost all three Tests to Australia on their summer tour, and were struggling for form. The last two Tests of that tour saw late penalties from Mike Harris and Berrick Barnes doom Welsh hopes of victory.
A Welsh win would bring some sort of redemption and break the hoodoo, and for most of the game it looked as if Sam Warburton’s men would manage to grind out a victory. Leigh Halfpenny was in inspired form, almost scoring what would have been one of the great Millennium Stadium tries from a chip and chase. Four penalties from his boot gave Wales a 12-9 lead with a minute left.
Then Kurtley Beale picked up the ball on the right wing. Never mind that the pass was suspiciously forward. Never mind that Beale was playing out of position, making a surprise appearance at No 10. Never mind that Beale is a man for whom inconsistency seems a badge of honour. Beale was at his beguilingly beautiful best, and Wales were at their most fearful reticent worst. He dived in at the corner to win the game for Australia.
Commentators are generally seen as omniscient overseers capable of calm analysis and passionate rhetoric alike. Not here. For a moment Eddie Butler, holder of 16 Welsh caps, was the soul of every Welsh rugby fan. “Oh,” he said sadly. “It’s going to be a try for Kurtley Beale.”
Wales 9 Australia 6, Cardiff 2018
A quick apology is in order. Looking back, this last game was really not a classic. Not even Dan Biggar’s mum, having watched her son kick a late winning penalty, would call this a classic.
But in the moment, when Biggar slotted the penalty to give Wales their first win over Australia for a decade, it would have felt like one.
No Welshman has scored more points against Australia than Leigh Halfpenny, who has scored 93 against the Wallabies, but the full-back had a slight off-day with the boot. Nevertheless, Wales led 6-3 with ten minutes left.
It was gritty, it was gallant, it was gutsy. A low-scoring arm wrestle, one of those matches where it feels like every play is somehow more vital, so hard are points to come by. So when Matt Toomua did his best Elton Flatley impression with a few minutes left to draw his side level, it felt like an absolute dagger.
See Beale, see Barnes… Wales were not destined to beat Australia. So when Ned Hanigan gave away a penalty for not rolling away, it almost seemed a mirage.
Biggar loves a late, pressure-filled penalty. The odds of success must have been north of 90%. But how many Welsh fans, after their history of recent heartbreak against Australia, actually thought he’d kick it?
Was it a classic? Almost certainly not. In the moment? It just might well have been.
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